A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about acting out and what that means with your child. Today, I want to talk about limit testing, which is different than acting out although it can often come with similar behavior as acting out.
Limit testing is sort of one of those hot button parenting subjects. I think because limit testing may require another hot topic; discipline. Both these words don’t have nearly the power that social and other media would suggest.
Limit testing is simply that. Testing where the limits lie. Testing where YOUR limits lie. It’s not necessarily aggressive, although it can look and feel that way. You have to remember that EVERYTHING about toddler-hood is a living science experiment. EVERYTHING. They are figuring out the world around them and their place in it.
What happens if I…
When I do this, then…
Limit testing can sometimes have a ball busting quality to it. Or it can look super aggressive. It’s not the child who is contrary, saying no to everything you say. That child is individuating; figuring out he’s separate from you and can make choices that are different from yours. Limit testing is the toddler who looks you in the eye as she dumps her milk on the floor…yeah…that. Or the child who’s been doing great with potty training and then decides to test your limits by suddenly peeing on the couch. Yeah. THAT.
Limit testing needs to be addressed in whatever manner you and your family have decided. Personally, here are my thoughts on discipline.
The reason you need to address limit testing is because it’s your limit. Your line in the sand. And if your child crosses it and nothing is done, your child will keep pushing until he finds the limit. I tell parents to not think of it with any, ANY judgement. It’s really a “what are you going to do if I….” Say that sentence to yourself without ANY sass to it. That’s all your child is asking. “What are you going to do if I…” If they learn that you will do nothing than that’s simply what they’ve learned. When I…then Mom…and that’s what they’ve learned. No more. No less.
I think of it like a fence in the mind. Think of an actual fence in a yard. Why do we physically fence our kids in the yard or park? So they don’t get lost, right? So they don’t wander and get hurt. Once a child is secure with a fence, they soon will play quite happily within it. Before that point, they may spend all their time trying to figure out a way out of the fence. Your job is to endlessly redirect them away from that, right? Whether it’s with discipline, consequences, or redirection. Once the child knows there’s no way out of the fence, they will find something to play with within the fence.
Now with limit testing that’s less physical and more about values or behavior, it’s the same deal. If there are NO limits, the child will get lost in his mind. Rules and limits are how we live and understand the world around us. Some are for sure, meant to be broken….but first, most should be learned.
The thing about limits, like discipline, is that NO ONE else can tell you what those are. It’s all about your particular family and your particular limits.
Oftentimes, it’s hard to spot limiting testing. When I’m consulting with clients, I rely on the parent’s feeling. If you feel like you’re being “tested”, chances are…you are. Limit testing will almost always stir up some anger in you. I know many people try to suppress that nudge of anger and after a while, end up exploding. We all do it.
It’s better to address your limit as it is. Whether that means an explanation at first, then a consequence, then something more, so be it. What won’t work is ignoring it. If you ignore limit testing, your child will keep LOOKING FOR THE LIMIT. We’re hard wired to find that “fence”. To find the end of the limit. This is why “bad” behavior will almost always escalate.
Only you know where your limit lies. And only you and your partner can decide when and what to do about it. Having a clear plan of action AHEAD OF TIME is always the best route. The ROUTINE of HOW you deal with limit testing will be soothing in and of itself for your child.
Every single child is different. Every family has different values. I can not recommend one or even several ways of dealing with limit testing that will work across the board (and I hate popular articles that suggest such things). If you are really struggling with limit testing, I am happy to consult with you to work on a plan for your particular child.